MUSIC

That time Elvis Presley scandalized Phoenix parents at the Arizona state fairgrounds

Ed Masley
Arizona Republic
Elvis Presley performs at the Arizona state fairgrounds in Phoenix, Ariz., on June 9, 1956.

By the time he made his first appearance on a Phoenix stage — a sold-out concert at the Arizona state fairgrounds — Elvis Presley was the hottest rockabilly singer on the planet.

It was June 9, 1956.

"Heartbreak Hotel," his first single since signing to RCA Records, was in its sixth of seven weeks at No. 1 on Billboard's Top 100.

Four days prior to performing at the fairgrounds, Presley scandalized the nation while grinding his way through a smoldering version of "Hound Dog" on "The Milton Berle Show."

The sexual energy of his pelvic gyrations inspired the New York Daily News to fear that pop culture had "reached its lowest depths," dismissing the performance as having been "tinged with the kind of animalism that should be confined to dives and bordellos."

The 5,000 tickets available to see the 21-year-old's first date in Phoenix sold out in two hours at $1.50 each.

There was no coliseum at the fairgrounds in the '50s. Presley performed at the grandstand, where rodeos and car races were held.

An ad in The Arizona Republic promised "an all new variety show" with opening sets by the Flaim Sextet, Miss Jackie Little, Frankie Connors, Phil Maraquin and the Jordanaires Quartet.

Ray Odom, the concert's promoter, who also brought Presley to Tucson the following night, had erected a chain link fence to prevent fans from rushing the stage, girls having torn his clothes and pulled his hair at other concerts.

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Elvis arrived in a green Cadillac

The singer was whisked to the stage in a green Cadillac.

As Odom recalled the view from his seat in the governor's box in "Ray Odom: A Lifetime of... Radio, Records & Racehorses," "We were surrounded by young girls. Not just bobby soxer's but many in their late teens or early twenty's. When Elvis was singing, they would grab their hair with both hands and jerk it or grab their ears and pull."

A review in The Arizona Republic the following morning weighed in on the night's events with "Elvis Presley kayoed 5,000 shrieking teenagers last night at the state fairground with throaty rock and roll songs and violent jerks and twitches."

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It said he did a 30-minute set, singing "Heartbreak Hotel," "Long Tall Sally," "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You" and "Blue Suede Shoes," among others, for "the hundreds of feminine admirers strained at a chain-link fence some 25 yards from the platform."

"Quickly, spotlights, fairground dust and his own violent contortions took a toll," The Republic's Jerry Eaton reported.

"The wax melted, and Presley's long, curly hair hung in his face. His dark blue suit and red knit shirt wilted."

The set ended with several choruses of "Hound Dog," during which "police warned surging teenagers away from fences as Presley abandoned the platform and scrambled on his knees toward the stands."

The man knew how to work a crowd.

"Then, he backed toward his green Cadillac," Eaton reported. "And with a wave of his hand, he stepped inside and was whisked away in a trail of fairground dust."

The next morning, when Odom returned to the fairgrounds to settle up, the groundskeeper said, "Ray, I've never seen anything like it. This morning when we went in to club up we found over 60 pairs of girl's panties sticking in the chain link fence."

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Elvis couldn't dance, 'but I can showboat'

The Republic also covered Presley meeting with the members of the Phoenix Elvis Presley Fan Club, one of whom asked, "Can you dance, Mr. Presley?"

"No doll," the singer replied. "But I can showboat."

Elvis Presley rocks and rolls during the song "Heartbreak Hotel" wowing enthusiastic teens ate the Arizona state fair in 1956. The image appeared in The Arizona Republic on June 10, 1956.

The Phoenix Gazette also covered the concert in a Bobbie Johnston column headlined "Presley performance terms disgusting."

"The novelty of his popularity is freakish and frightening, but nevertheless it is there," she wrote, clearly siding with "the irate and disgusted" who phoned to let her know that the singer's "peculiar brand of entertainment" is not appreciated by the older generation.

"The sight of Mr. Presley wailing his unintelligible lyrics in an inadequate voice during a display of primitive movements difficult to describe is enough to upset parents," Johnston wrote.

"His entire career seems to be based on crudeness no teenager should witness. It is good to know many of the parents in the audience seemed to fear such displays might spread and grow. His performance can be summed up briefly: poor talent; poor taste; certainly not for children."

Reach the reporter at ed.masley@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-4495. Follow him on Twitter @EdMasley.

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